What the Gretchen Fullido complaint tells us about sexual harassment

AT A GLANCE

MANILA, Philippines – Reporter and news anchor Gretchen Fullido on October 5 became one of the first news personalities to speak up against sexual harassment in Philippine media.

In a criminal complaint she filed with the Quezon City Prosecutor's Office, Fullido, who covers the entertainment industry for ABS-CBN, accused her former boss, ex-TV Patrol supervising producer Cheryl Favila, and segment producer Maricar Asprec of sending her text messages with sexual innuendos and requests for favors that she deemed were sexual in nature.

The two have denied the allegations.

Fullido said her rejection of Favila's supposed sexual advances negatively affected her work on TV Patrol. She said that she initially decided against speaking out because being "a mere subordinate," she "wanted to keep the peace in her workplace.”

Favila and Asprec, in public statements, rejected Fullido's accusations and insisted they were not in a position of power over her. The reporter is not a victim but a "clever user and manipulator," they claimed.

The complaint originally stemmed from an investigation that ABS-CBN conducted in the first half of the year, triggered by Fullido's decision to lodge sexual harassment charges against the two with the company.

After a probe, the media giant in July 2018 dismissed Fullido's complaint, citing the reporter's admission that neither Favila nor Asprec "demanded, requested or required any sexual favor from her."

But ABS-CBN dismissed Favila nonetheless after finding her guilty of gross misconduct. ABS-CBN concluded that Favila's "use of sexual-oriented language in communicating with Fullido is inappropriate" given the two's working relationship. 

Three months later, Fullido decided to make the complaint public and bring Favila and Asprec to court.

It's never simple

The move comes against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement worldwide and shines a spotlight on incidents of sexual harassment that usually go unreported in the Philippines.

It has gained public attention and sparked discussions in circles outside the parties' social networks.

For Nathalia Africa Verceles, director of the University of the Philippines-Center for Women's and Gender Studies, sexual harassment should not be talked about "very simplistically."

The issue is complex, to say the least, she said. (READ: The many faces of sexual harassment in PH)

In the case of Fullido, what should be highlighted in a sexual harassment case are the act itself and the allegations presented, and not whether the parties involved are heterosexual or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, Verceles said.

Favila and Asprec are part of the LGBTQ community.

(Below are the allegations hurled against each other by both sides)

Key issue is the act itself

Evalyn Ursua, the lawyer of Favila and Asprec, said in a statement that the complaint showed discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. In a separate statement, the two said that "this case is ripe for the reinforcement of gender stereotypes."

Many also expressed fears that the complaint might be used against a community already subjected to discrimination and offensive remarks, among others.

While these concerns may be valid, the key issue is still sexual harassment, according to Verceles.

An expert on women's and gender studies, Verceles said the public should be wary of focusing the conversation on the sexual orientation, gender identity and  expression (SOGIE) of the actors involved.

"I think we should look at the act and the veracity of the accusations rather than who the accused is or are," she said. "We should really focus on sexual harassment as a phenomenon without thinking of whom we may inadvertently or advertently harm because of the accusations. That is not the point."

Talks highlighting or dwelling too much on the fact that the accused are lesbians or gays, regardless of whether this benefits them or not, hinder the goal of raising awareness of sexual harassment.

But that is not to say that the public should be given a free pass to spew homophobic remarks either.

For Verceles, everyone must remember that anyone accused of having committed sexual harassment does not represent the community that he or she belongs to.

"Veer away from the sexual orientation or gender identity of accused," she said. "Look at them as individuals who do not represent anybody but themselves."

Power imbalance

Rooted in a patriarchal culture in most societies, especially in the Philippines, the law on sexual harassment involves the power dynamic between the parties involved.

This is clear in the law, Republic Act No. 7877, or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995, which states that harassment is committed when a person who has "authority, influence, and moral ascendancy" demands, requests, or requires any sexual favor from a person in a work, education, or training setting. 

This definition highlights the inherent power imbalance between the victim and perpetrator – a boss to his or her employee, for example, or a teacher to his or her student. This power imbalance is such that harassment often ends up unreported, with victims choosing to walk away from what he or she would consider a situation that favors his or her supervisor.

Reluctance and fear of speaking out against sexual harassment is common in workplace environments because there's too much at stake in these situations, Verceles said.

Regardless of the setting, coming out as a victim "takes too much courage" at the risk of reliving one's trauma, Verceles said. The reality is that in most cases, people who report on these incidents gain nothing and expose themselves to backlash, even from the public.

INTERNAL. There are administrative mechanisms victims can use to seek justice.

Photo from Shutterstock

Limits of the law

The two parties, based on their latest statements, have decided to further address the issue in court. It is "where the real battle should be," said Favila and Asprec.

The Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 states that harassment occurs when "a person demands, requests, or requires sexual favors from another person in exchange for another thing."

This provision was apparently the basis of ABS-CBN in dismissing Fullido's sexual harassment complaint against Favila. The company concluded that Favila never demanded anything from Fullido.

In the criminal complaint she filed before a Quezon City prosecutor, Fullido debunked this defense and asserted that the demands were "implicit."

Indeed, while the law is specific in spelling out that sexual favors should be demanded, requested, or required, the Supreme Court (SC) previously ruled on another case and declared that a request of sexual favor "can be discerned, with equal certitude, from the acts of offender."

In Domingo vs Rayala, a stenographic reporter filed a complaint of sexual harassment against her boss, former National Labor Relations Commission chairperson Rogelio Rayala, after he touched parts of her body and tickled her ears.

Rayala argued that the act did not constitute sexual harassment because, citing the law, "there must be a demand, request, or requirement of sexual favor." He never made any, Rayala said.

The SC, in rejecting Rayala's petition questioning his dismissal from office, stressed that "it is not essential that the demand, request, or requirement be made as a condition for continued employment or for promotion to a higher position. It is enough that the respondent's acts result in creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for the employee."

The 2008 SC decision also highlighted the responsibility that people in power carry.

"It is incumbent upon the head of office to set an example on how his employees should conduct themselves in public office, so that they may work efficiently in a healthy working atmosphere," the Court said in the decision penned by then-associate justice Antonio Nachura. "Courtesy demands that he should set a good example."

Integrity of processes

On the other hand, Verceles said that a company or government agency should also make sure its processes do not encourage wrongful accusations.

"It's also important to emphasize that we should look into the integrity of the processes through which we ferret out the truth," she said. "We do not want to wrongly accuse and wrongly convict a person who is possibly innocent." 

She added: "Galit ako sa sexual harassment, pero gusto ko rin na tama ang proseso at hindi nadedehado ang walang kasalanan (I am angry at sexual harassment but I want the process to be right and not disadvantage the innocent)."

These investigations should be "done very well and also sensitively with respect to the rights and feelings of the accuser."

The apparent limitations imposed by the law should not stop victims from seeking justice. It should also not hinder schools or offices from addressing the so-called culture within their walls that may perpetuate sexual harassment.

"We also hope that subcultures in workplaces and educational institutions are more favorable towards women with respect to issues of sexual harassment, and not just women, but all human beings who are actual and potential victims of sexual harassment," Verceles said.

Administrative mechanisms are very important, but these should be effective, according to Verceles, for victim-survivors to seek other forms of justice outside the courts.

"Hindi natin alam kung kailan pa maaamyendahan ang batas na iyan (We don't know when they will amend the law)," she said. "But in the meantime, there must be a way that we can get justice for those who need justice."

Not yours alone

The recent #MeToo movement has inspired many people to come out with their own stories, seeking to hold to account those who used their power to sexually harass others.

While the decision to talk about it publicly is a personal matter, this could lead to better awareness of the problem itself.

Verceles said this will help victims realize that what they experienced is "a shared problem which is not something you should blame yourself for."

"Sexual harassment exists because of unequal gender relations, which is a systemic and structural problem. With that understanding, you gain confidence to confront it because it's not just yours alone," Verceles said. – Rappler.com

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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